|Game On! - Page 2|
Getting into the Game
My sports initiation was typical. I fell in love with hoops, instantly and irrevocably, at age 10 during a rare family vacation in Miami Beach. Under a scorching December sun, my father and I played in my first-ever pickup basketball game on the hotel's half-court. My dad, tall and sturdily built, had been a college athlete and moved with swagger and skill. (I relish this virile image of him, rather than as the stumbling, glassy-eyed, brain-cancer victim of only four years later.) I could barely catch the ball—so big and bouncy, unlike a baseball—let alone shoot with it. I felt even more out of place when the ball whipped back and forth among the other players—strangers in life, savvy brethren in the game—but never came my way. I wanted to belong to this sudden community of men, not be a child on the margins. Then, on the game's last play, my father hit me with a pass where I was loitering underneath the basket, and I miraculously tossed the ball up against the backboard, around the rim, and in. We won. I flushed with pride and was hooked. The next morning, I was back on the court by 7:00 to practice my shooting and begin turning myself into a player.
From that point forward, the sport has taught me many lessons. Early on I learned to savor the game's textures and physics. In June, the ball bounced off the hot schoolyard asphalt as a spinning, shimmering orb, full of heat and life. When shot errantly, it ricocheted about the orange rim in quick triplets of metallic pings. In December, that orb became slick and cold and landed with sodden, bass tones. I, too, was all material form and rushing sensation: sneakers squeaking, head riveting, red arms and legs gesticulating in bursts of motion without conscious thought. It was both soothing and exhilarating to lose myself in the game's kinetic flow.
Another lesson was diligence. The more I bounced the ball, the more deftly I could control it with just my fingertips without having to look down. The more I practiced dipping my knees, cocking my wrist, and releasing my shot, the more often the ball arced through the center of the netless rim with nary a sound. My hard work produced skills that allowed me to dominate my ham-handed, middle-school classmates. The more masterful I felt, the more I bought into the gym-rat ethos of practice, practice, and more daily practice in drafty New York City rec centers and shabby playgrounds with faded lines and buckling blacktop.
I learned about trust, relationships, and teamwork. I was taught by a summer-camp coach to lob the ball to a teammate at the high post, and then to expect a return pass when I'd cut hard toward the basket to score a layup. I learned to lead my teammate to an open spot on the floor with a low bounce pass so that he had his chance to spin around and shoot. Whenever I was on pickup squads in which the ball flew precisely up top, crosscourt, and down low from one panting player to another, I felt as if one mind seamlessly linked us.
I learned the power of sports to regulate feelings. When my father died, I spent long hours alone on the schoolyard court, a 15-year-old in focused concentration/dissociation, settling myself into numbness with the mechanical repetitiveness of hundreds of foul shots. When a girlfriend left me a few years later for another guy, I worked out my anger by drilling countless line-drive jumpers from the baseline. My life sometimes felt out of control, but I had the predictability of the ball's bounce, the reliability of ready teammates, the surety of honed skills. I had game.